BY Owen Graham – President Obama’s new national defense strategy is a budget-driven exercise masquerading as a strategic plan, writes Heritage’s Kim Holmes, former Assistant Secretary of State, in The Washington Times.
In trotting out the new strategy, President Obama said the “tide of war is receding.” Accordingly, U.S. forces will “no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” (read: Iraq). But is the tide of war receding on the world stage? And how does he know that the U.S. will not need to engage in another “stability operation”?
The Army shed much of its counterinsurgency capabilities after the Vietnam War, thinking that such conflicts were a thing of the past. Iraq and Afghanistan proved otherwise. By cutting America’s ground forces by 10 percent to 15 percent to pre-9/11 levels, we are removing the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges. We may also be inviting them by ignoring the lessons of history.
For those not familiar with the details of the strategic guidance report, here is a translation: In stating U.S. forces will “no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” the Administration is preparing to gut the Army and Marine Corps, while hitting the Navy and Air Force less (for now). The “strategy” basically says we have a four-legged stool, and we’re going to cut off two legs. This is part of the so-called pivot to Asia to deal with a rising China.
More focus on China is fine and dandy, but there’s a problem with militaries designed to do only one thing well: The enemy gets a vote. Every war the U.S. has fought in recent years was in an unexpected place against an unanticipated enemy. Having a “scalpel” for a military doesn’t help much when what you really need is a Swiss Army knife.
At the heart of this assessment is the rosy assumption that the future geopolitical landscape will not produce the types of major conflicts as the past. Yet the world is still a very dangerous place.
Both Iran and North Korea have active nuclear and ballistic missile programs and the ability to reach U.S. allies and forward-deployed troops with ballistic missiles. China is engaged in a non-transparent major military buildup with unclear intentions. A re-emergent Russia is vigorously modernizing its nuclear forces and seeks to intimidate its former Soviet neighbors, Europe, and the NATO alliance. Terrorist threats to the U.S. and its European allies emanate from Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and failed states. Cyber attacks threaten critical financial and communication networks and national security assets in an already teetering economy.
The strategic guidance jettisons the U.S. military’s longstanding strategy to be able to fight two major wars at one time—a post–Cold War standard that was held even during the Clinton years. What has changed to abandon this policy? Since the Clinton years, the world has seen the rise of China, a resurgent Russia, a nuclear-aspiring Iran, and the 9/11 attacks. If anything, this standard is only more necessary today.
The problem is that it is not always up to us when we engage in conflict, respond to terrorism, or have to prevent hostilities abroad from flaring into regional conflicts. Even a cursory reading of history shows that authoritarian regimes find it advantageous to have two wars taking place simultaneously. Attack one place and your enemy can’t respond in the other.
Obama’s strategy is based on the false assumption that excessive defense spending is responsible for our government’s fiscal crisis, writes Holmes. Gutting defense will not solve America’s budget problems. Defense spending could go to zero today, and spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security over the next few decades would still consume the entire federal budget by 2049. Of course, it is much easier to cut defense spending than the proverbial “third rail” of American politics—the big three entitlements.
Holmes makes clear that the risks to America and its allies added by this strategy are unnecessary. Defense planning should be about planning for an unpredictable future and providing a safety net. Obama’s new strategy and defense cuts are pulling the safety net out from underneath us.